The 2017 Whitney Biennial collects critical acclaim, while some works draw flack

Paul Laster  -  April 7, 2017

Returning after a three-year hiatus while it resettled in its new Renzo Piano-designed building at the base of the High Line, the 2017 Whitney Biennial is getting rave reviews, but some pieces in the show are provoking heated debate.

The first biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art that was organized in the run up to the presidential election in 20 years, the show was shaped by the nation’s political climate.

Organized by Whitney Museum associate curator Christopher Y. Lew and Mia Locks, an independent curator, the exhibition features 63 artists and collectives—half of which are women and artists of color. Spread out over two full floors, the lobby galleries and rooftop spaces, the show offers work in a wide range of media—from painting, sculpture and installations to photography, video, film, new media and performance.

The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith calls the 2017 Biennial “an adult affair: spatially, gracious to art and visitors alike, and exceptionally good looking, with an overall mood of easy accessibility.”

Four of our favorite artists in the show that fit that bill are painters Shara Hughes and Carrie Moyers and sculptors Larry Bell and John Riepenhoff. Hughes and Moyers both deal with abstraction, with Hughes thickly painted canvases drifting into the realm of landscape and Moyers flat, luminous surfaces leaning toward the corporal and psychological. And while Riepenhoff physically incorporates the body with his sculptures that combine his cast-and-clothed legs holding artworks by artists he admires, Bell contributes sublime, glass sculptures that are void of content yet reflective of everything around them.

On the other hand, ARTnews editor Andrew Russeth finds the mood of the show “anxious and dark, even sinister, but also, at times, expectant, guardedly hopeful.” One of the most anxiety-producing works in the show is Jordan Wolfson’s violent virtual reality video of a person being beaten bloody in the street to the sound of Hebrew prayers, while two of the most sinister pieces are Henry Taylor’s painting of a black man being fatally shot through the window of his car by a Minnesota police officer and Dana Schutz’ painting of the disfigured body of Emmett Till, a black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi after being falsely accused of flirting with a white woman in 1955.

Although Wolfson’s shocking work is a fictional simulation using an animatronic doll and post-production enhancement, Taylor and Schutz’ canvases are based on factual stories, which is what makes them all the more poignant, and in the case of the latter painting, highly controversial.

Shortly after the show opened, a black American artist held a protest in front of Schutz’ work wearing a T-shirt that read “Black Death Spectacle” and then Hannah Black, a British-born black artist who lives in Berlin, sent an open letter to the Whitney objecting to the portrayal of Till in an open casket by Schutz because she is a white artist. Declaring that it was “not acceptable for a white person to transmute Black suffering into profit and fun,” Black demanded that the painting be removed from the show and destroyed.

A day later, in response to ARTnews editor Sarah Douglas’ Facebook post about an article in ARTnews that reproduced Black’s letter, New York gallerist Nicelle Beauchene brought attention to the fact that Schutz’s painting “was first shown in Berlin at CFA, Hannah Black’s hometown, yet she only seems to take issue with it now.”

Punctuating that point while discussing the controversy in Affidavit Art, former Village Voice art critic Gary Indiana writes “it seemed obvious to me, reading Black’s letter, that the author herself was ‘pretending to care’ about the emotional injury she claims Schutz’s innocuous painting inflicts on a black viewer. In reality, Schutz’s painting serves Black as an almost arbitrary pretext for a cliché-riddled, race-baiting demagoguery, calculated to ensure many seasons of earnestly pointless panel discussions, starring none other than Hannah Black.”

Writing in The Art Newspaper, Pac Pobric perceptively states, “Many of the works in this year’s exhibition respond to the country’s social tensions, but the pressing question about what art can do during a crisis remains unanswered.”

The art collectives exhibiting in the Biennial attempt to give a response. Postcommodity presents a four-channel video of a section of the fence that intersects the U.S.-Mexico border projected on four interior walls of a small room that shows the viewer that fences and walls contains us as much as they keep others out. Likewise, Occupy Museums, a group that grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, offers the collaborative installation Debtfair, which display works that can be purchased for the cost of the monthly loan payments of the artists contributing the works to the piece.

“It feels more like the last Biennial of the Obama Era than the first of the Trump Era,” Artnet News’ Ben Davis remarks. Commenting on issues that easily could fit either era, Jon Kessler presents kinetic sculptures that mix digital technology with analog mechanics. His sculpture Exodus offers a motorized procession of kitsch figures representing different ethnicities being videotaped on an iPhone and broadcast on a screen, which is supported by a trunk, to symbolize the political merry-go-round that refugees can’t seem to escape, while his other mechanized marvel riffs on the issues of global warming and climate change.

Since most of the art in the Biennial was conceived prior to the presidential election, “the show already feels nostalgic,” says New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl. At least one work, however, a performance piece by Puppies Puppies, seems to hit the nail on the Trump Era head. The group’s work Liberté (Liberty) presents a performer dressed as the Statue of Liberty on the eighth floor balcony, the highest point in the museum, where Liberty is left out in the cold, with a drooping crown, persevering to prevail.